Jerusalem & Babylon / Getting to the Heart of Chabad

The battle over ownership of Nariman House in Mumbai masks a deeper tension within the movement.

The imposing Gothic facade of the Bombay High Court - once one of the most potent symbols of the Raj and British imperial justice, with its Oval Maidan cricket ground in front - was the backdrop last week to one of the most interesting disputes in the Jewish world today.

Two men sporting the unmistakable black suits, misshapen fedoras and unruly beards of Chabad Hasidim faced each other in one of the building's corridors. After a few moments, the older one drew near and began haranguing his fellow Hasid in Hebrew. The younger man remained silent, looking downward.

Last month, over 4,000 shluchim (Chabad emissaries ) stationed in 67 countries around the globe converged on the movement's headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, New York for their annual get together. Last year, one of the central themes of the four-day convention was the deadly November 2008 attack on the Chabad center in Mumbai, in which six people - including the emissary, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and his wife, Rivka - were murdered.

The memory of Gabi and Rivky was invoked repeatedly as testimony to the sacrifice of the shluchim. Pictures of their 2-year-old son Moshe, saved from the carnage by his Indian nanny, became a central fundraising lever for the movement.

But at this year's convention, the Mumbai attack scarcely warranted a mention. One reason for this is the legal tussle now enfolding between Holtzberg's parents - themselves lifelong members of Chabad - and the New York headquarters over ownership of Nariman House, which was practically destroyed during the 2008 attack.

The Holtzbergs claim the building was bought and operated with funds obtained by their son, and are demanding it be renovated and used once again as the local Chabad center and as a living monument to the couple. The Chabad movement claims Holtzberg received donations as its representative and therefore they should have control over the building. Chabad would like to relocate its Mumbai center, apparently out of concern for the prohibitive cost of security, and turn the Nariman House into a museum.

Both sides insist this argument is "in the family" and that there is no danger of a rift within the movement. But the battle over Nariman House masks a deeper tension within Chabad. The headquarters in New York, located at the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson's home, wields enormous power. It selects the shluchim, who are products of Chabad yeshivas and sons of veteran Hasidim, trains them and then determines their lifelong postings. They hold in their hands the most successful Jewish franchise.

The shluchim continue to receive guidance throughout their missions and the existence of a global headquarters, with its annual gatherings and constant inspiration, provides great comfort to an isolated shaliach and his family, often the only religious Jews in the region.

But at the same time, the shaliach is to a great degree on his own. Aside from an initial grant, the fundraising that finances the center he is expected to run, and indeed his family's livelihood, is entirely up to him. These enterprising young couples have succeeded in many cases in raising millions and erecting fabulous Jewish centers, schools and kindergartens. The temptation to see all of this as a personal achievement rather than that of the faraway center is great, especially as the responsibility and sacrifice is all borne by the rabbi out in the field. So who gets to call the shots?

In his fascinating account of last month's convention in Brooklyn, Haaretz reporter Yair Ettinger details some of the ideological differences within the Chabad movement. While the leadership tries to broadcast today a politically correct image of friendship toward all Jews, including even homosexuals and those not considered Jewish according to the strict rules of halakha (Jewish religious law ), many in the movement are not pleased with this direction. Some feel that Chabad has become too tolerant of those who do not keep mitzvot, turning a blind eye to those who drive on Shabbat and relinquishing their role of preparing the Jewish people for the coming of the Messiah.

Others claim that the movement has lost its old intellectual roots of profound Hasidic learning. There are also disputes regarding the true role of the shluchim and the central place they now hold in the movement.

So why should all this inside baseball concern anyone outside of Chabad? For many secular Jews, they are just a bunch of religious nutcases. Even within Orthodox circles, there is much derision of the movement which the late leader of the Lithuanian Jews, Rabbi Elazar Shach, called "that sect," and which many, only part-jokingly, refer to as "the closest religion to Judaism."

Unrelenting energy of the movement

But Chabad has a serious claim to being the largest, most powerful Jewish organization in the world. It is not only the fact that in a thousand cities around the world, including hundreds of towns and suburbs in the United States, they are the only visible Jewish presence, attracting tens of thousands of secular Jews who have no other alternative spiritual or educational framework. The unrelenting Chabad energy has not only revitalized moribund communities; in many places, especially in eastern Europe, they have also wiped out any other brands of Jewish religious life.

A sane person looks in disbelief today when confronted with the meshichistim, the messianic group of Chabad who still believe the Rebbe, the King Messiah, did not pass away in 1994 but has merely gone into hiding and will soon be revealed. In the early 1990s, however, many non-religious Israelis were also gripped by Chabad's campaign to "Prepare for the coming of the Messiah." And an even more successful campaign was their "Netanyahu is good for the Jews" drive in the final days of the 1996 elections, which was sponsored by Chabad's main funder in those days, Yossel Gutnick, and which probably tipped the scales and gave Bibi his first term as prime minister.

The movement has been less active in Israeli politics in more recent years; the vocal rabbis active on the far-right are minor figures within Chabad, but their influence in many Jewish communities around the world continues to grow. If the leadership decides to harness that energy toward achieving a political or ideological goal, it will have a major impact.

Chabad may be strong enough to ultimately contain all of its diverse strands. As it is, the characteristics of each country require very different types of shluchim. The emissary to Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar - with his almost feudal trappings of power in the Moscow headquarters, his alliance with the Kremlin and involvement in high-level diplomatic intrigues, his friendship with oligarchs, and the ruthless manner in which he has marginalized his rival for the post of Chief Rabbi of Russia - has little in common with Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm and the folksy way in which he continues to ply his trade among thousands of adoring Israeli backpackers in Bangkok. But they would both insist that they are mere acolytes of the Rebbe.

The lack of a living, unifying father figure to replace Schneerson will make it harder for Chabad, as the years go on, to keep it all together. Beneath the surface, there are many different factions within the movement; the split between the messianists and the pragmatists has been papered over, but is still festering. Among the thousands of newcomer Chabadniks and their family members, who won't be considered for exalted positions, there is growing resentment toward the highborn shluchim.

The Nariman House in Mumbai is far from being the only asset over which legal battles will be fought. And above all, the conflicting aims of right-wing Israeli politics, worldwide Jewish education and identity, Torah observance and Haredi exceptionalism could very well tear the movement apart.